Empathy: the life lesson of George Eliot's Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot is a book full of characters, navigating everything from love, to family, to morality — in the end asking the question: is it a good thing to live a life of duty or is it ridiculous? This is the final episode of a two-part series.

Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch 'one of the few English books written for grownups.'

Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw from Middlemarch by George Eliot, published in the 1870s. Ladislaw is in love with Dorothea, one of the novel’s main characters —there are over 60. Ladislaw, a headstrong idealist, keeps his feelings secret. (Wikimedia)

George Eliot's 1871-1872 novel Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life was a hit from the start.

Queen Victoria loved it. The parlour of her London home had to be enlarged to fit the crowds who came to her readings. But what exactly was the appeal of a book with its scores of characters, some of whom interact with each other, while some don't — and all of whom seem to drop into the action as if from a balloon? 

The trick may be not in reading Middlemarch, but in re-reading it. As Vladimir Nabokov once quipped: the only way to read a book properly is to read it more than once. That's when the patterns and themes emerge like the figure in Henry James's carpet.

"People do not appear haphazard in her works," said V. S. Pritchett of Eliot. "They are not eccentrics. They are all planned and placed. She is orderly in her ethics; she is orderly in her social observation." But with all due respect to Pritchett, they are eccentrics: Dorothea Brooke, the "star" of the novel, is naive, spirited, and flighty — and marries a fool, Mr. Casaubon, who's a blowhard and a gasbag all at once. Rosamund Vincy is precious to a fault. There are many others.

They're eccentric simply by being human. But Pritchett is right about Eliot's ethics and social observation: Middlemarch is a book about finding a way to sympathize with others whom we may not like very much, or even dislike.

Take Mr. Casaubon. "A dried up old stick of a man," says Rebecca Mead, writer for The New Yorker and author of My Life in Middlemarch. He's a lone scholar, working on a project he calls "The Key to All Mythologies," which aims to connect the Christian narrative with the history of humankind completely, tying in psychology, cosmology, theology: in other words, it's a book about everything. 

Middlemarch is a book that 'seems to offer different narratives, different storylines, different moods even for different stages of life,' says writer Rebecca Mead. She adds that every time she picks up the book it offers something new. (Elisabeth C. Prochnik/Penguin Random House)

But it's a failure. And in a deep pocket of his mind, Casaubon knows it, too. But he represses the knowledge. We're meant to find him a self-duping near-charlatan who takes advantage of Dorothea Brooke's enthusiasm for him and his work. Until, as Eliot warms up to her character, we're asked to look at him with fresh eyes. 

"For my part I am very sorry for him," Eliot's narrator tells us in Middlemarch. "It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self." In other words, can we despise Casaubon and yet feel sorry for him, too?

"You are a lot more sympathetic, I think, or you should be," said Mead, "to the tragedy of a person not becoming everything that they hoped that they might be. That's a terrible thing. And that's so much the theme of Middlemarch." Nose in books, mostly all of them outdated relics, he is missing the great spectacle of life. 

From hate to sympathy

Still, the pendulum swings back.

Casaubon lashes out at Dorothea for spending too much time with his nephew, Will Ladislaw. He suspects them of planning a separate life without him once he's dead: it's paranoia (although he's not entirely wrong) and through modern eyes we also see Casaubon as a manipulator. Back and forth the reader goes, hating Casaubon, sympathizing with him. 

'The primary driver of [George Eliot's] characters is this kind of ambition to change the world in some way,' says Nicholas Dames. (Columbia University)

That's exactly the point, says Nicholas Dames, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York.

"All these things have to be true. So you have to kind of be moving around constantly. And that's what the narrator does, is invite you always to be moving around your perspectives. It's part of what gives the novel its length, because you have to see so many different viewpoints on any given person at any given moment."

There are lessons on how to live in Middlemarch. Some, like Johanna-Thomas Corr in The New Statesman have referred to the book as a "secular Bible": we hate Casaubon, we pity Casaubon. Sound familiar?

It's like the story of Job: feeling tenderness for someone in misery or distress because of some unforeseen crisis. Only for Eliot, who earlier in life rejected Christianity, it's a lesson that comes without the supernatural trappings of religion: all the angels and burning bushes and little winged babies. 

Continual relevance

Books like Middlemarch have endless traction. It's what gives the novel its long-term appeal. And it's what inspires those who look to Eliot for insights into modern relationships, like Rebecca Shoptaw, who wrote and directed a web series adaptation of Middlemarch on YouTube: 60 episodes, each five or six minutes long, all set in a modern college town called Middlemarch, Connecticut. 

Although Mary Garth is considered 'plain' in Middlemarch, Fred Vincy is in love with her and wants to marry her. (Wikimedia)

It's low-budget on purpose: meant to look like a video blog. Shoptaw casts friends, law students, students of Middle East studies, and a student whose only previous acting experience was in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, playing a wall. Shoptaw's Middlemarch: The Series goes an extra step, mixing up genders, portraying some characters like Fred Vincy as gay.

"The changing of genders wasn't an attempt to fix anything," says Shoptaw. "It wasn't like an intervention against [the book]. I was trying to keep alive and bring across the spirit of Middlemarch. And I wanted this to be more like, you know, when people put on Shakespeare plays, and they'll set it somewhere interesting." 

Both Eliot's classic novel and the modern adaptations, including a 1994 BBC TV series, are realistic, insofar as they want to portray what it means to live with and among complicated, often difficult people. This particular kind of realism has a special resonance now. When it comes to COVID, for example, there are those who believe in a scientific narrative and those who don't, and the two sides are in conflict. There is a clash over individual versus community "rights", however we choose to define them.

In this supercharged context, can we still have sympathy for those we don't agree with? One hundred and fifty years after publication, George Eliot's Middlemarch is still asking us that question. 

Guests in this episode:

Nicholas Dames is the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York.

Rebecca Mead is a writer for The New Yorker and author of My Life in Middlemarch

Ruth Livesey is Head of the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London in the U.K.

Ronjaunee Chatterjee is an Associate Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal. 

Laura Gehrke is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Washington. 

Fionnuala Dillane is at the School of English, Drama and Film at the University College of Dublin, Ireland. 

Rebecca Shoptaw is a writer and director of Middlemarch: The Series on Youtube.

Middlemarch, The BBC Series, 1994, starring Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke, written by Andrew Davies based on the novel by George Eliot. 

*This episode was produced by Tom Jokinen.

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